British Currency, Pre-Decimalization
or, I'll trade you two florins and a half-crown for six shillings and sixpence

Up until 1971, money in the United Kingdom was essentially broken down in to pounds, shillings, and pence, so that groovy Sly and the Family Stone album you wanted in '70 would have had a label that looked this this:

£5/15/3.*

That is, five pounds, fifteen shillings, and threepence. 'Fair enough,' you say. 'I can keep that straight.' But there's ever so much more. Witness the following chart, and realize in the depths of your soul that pre-decimalization English accountants possessed a degree of genius.

Denomination on the left, value on the right:

  • 1/4 farthing = 1/16d
  • 1/3 farthing = 1/12d
  • 1/2 farthing = 1/8d
  • 1 farthing = 1/4d
  • 1 halfpenny (ha'penny) = 1/2d
  • 1 penny = 1d
  • twopence = 2d
  • threepence = 3d
  • groat = 4d
  • sixpence = 6d
  • shilling(aka bob) = 1/-= 12d
  • florin = 2/-
  • halfcrown = 2/6d
  • double florin = 4/-
  • crown = 5/-
  • noble = 80d
  • third guinea = 6/8d
  • ten shillings = 10/-
  • half sovereign = 10/-
  • half guinea = 10/6d
  • mark = 160d
  • merk = 13/6
  • sovereign = £1 (pound)
  • £1 = £1 = 20s
  • guinea = 21s
  • £2 = £2
  • two guineas = £2-2s
  • £5 = £5
  • 5 guineas = £5-5s
  • 5 pound note = £5
  • 10 pound note = £10
  • 20 pound note = £20

Balance your books now, bucko. And what the hell is the 'd' all about, you wonder, foolishly thinking that 'p' was for penny, or pence? It stands for denarius, the medieval English silver penny. And I haven't even mentioned the angel, testoon, or ryal, used too briefly to be of note.

'This is a mess,' you claim. True. It'll be helpful if you just try to remember that there were 12 pence to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound.

'But who's responsible?' you jolt, frustration in your voice. 'And what in God's name were the tax forms like?' Calm down--taxes were based more on armed threats than paperwork in medieval times, and as to who should take the blame, well, the complaints department was usually located in the throne room. Eventually, of course, it moved to Parliament.

To Coin a Phrase

  • 1279:Edward I regularizes the minting of the ha'penny and farthing in the same year he introduces the groat.
  • 1344:Edward III comes up with the florin, (also known as the Double Leopard). It has all the popularity of the new American Sacajawea Dollar Coin, and is soon replaced by the noble.
  • 1470-1489: the only gold coins issued under Henry VI are the angel series. He must have been too busy losing his territories in France.
  • 1489-1526: A new sovereign, and a new sovereign. Tudor King Henry VII brings in the coin, worth a pound.
  • 1526: Henry VIII rather famously (amongst boring people) devalues the currency and introduces the Crown of the Rose, valued at 4/6d-a penny for each wife, I suppose, and like them, ill-fated.
  • 1558-1603: Elizabeth I, when she wasn't avoiding Philip of Spain or executing her half-sister, brought out the threefarthing, the twopence farthing, and the fourpence ha'penny.
  • 1604-1612: James VI of Scotland (read James I of England) writes the Scottish lion into the program, reducing the pound's weight and calling it the Unite.
  • 1649-1660: Charles I's head disappears from more than his body. It's largely the same coins, but images of Parliament and Oliver Cromwell are printed on them.
  • 1662: Charles II renames the half-groat to its value, twopence, and gives it two brothers, threepence and fourpence.
  • 1663-1717: All this new gold, all from Guinea. Hmmm. We should do something with it.
  • 1811: Parliament introduces the first token money--worth more than the metal it's printed on.
  • 1816:A banner year; England adopts the Gold Standard in place of silver, and the pound becomes the standard unit of currency--still represented by the sovereign.
  • 1833: Banknotes, though issued during the Napoleonic Wars, finally become legal tender instead of just promisory notes. The streets of London cease to jingle as loudly, and the purse industry loses half its sales demographic.
  • 1836: the groat makes an unwelcome comeback.
  • 1856-1874: No doubt, massive psychotic episodes among bookkeepers make decimalisation more attractive. The groat goes away again, for good.
  • 1890: The double florin vanishes.
  • 1915: The crown goes the way of the groat.
  • 1918-1942: The Gold Standard wraps up in 1931, leaving gold coins a matter for special releases and collectors' sets.
  • 1960: The farthing, that plucky little fellow, finally joins the ranks of its departed brethren. And you though a quarter of a penny was worthless in 1500.
  • 1965: Tens. Divisions of ten. Things dividing easily into other things! Think of the possibilities! My God...it'll be beautiful. So let's do it. Now get rid of the half penny, shilling and florin, and start making 5 and 10 pence pieces instead.
  • 1970: The half-crown bows out, and a twenty-pound note steps in.
  • 1971: Decimal Day. New money. New coins. Plenty of grumpy people not knowing what to make of these newfangled ideas. The end of an era. 100 pence to a pound. God save the Queen.
  • 1982: Must everything be perfectly round? Never! Take a look at the new 20p coin!
  • 1983: A noteworthy year. Or, rather, not worthy. For notes. I'm confused. Fortunately they here replaced one-pound notes with coins. Except in Scotland.

There is a two-pound coin now, and twopence (tuppence) pieces still exist, so there are still hints of that old confusing charm. As I understand it, however, the two-pounder isn't particularly well liked, as it is rather large and a bit heavy to have in one's pockets. But it is money, after all, so what can one do but spend it.


*It is unlikely any album would actually have cost this much.

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